Dallas Colleges: Ronnell Lewis
Why the Sooners will win the Big 12
2. Its secondary is fierce, and revitalized: Texas probably has the league's best overall secondary, but Oklahoma's not far behind. Cornerbacks Hurst and Aaron Colvin are solid, and safety Tony Jefferson might, by the end of the season, have a case for being the league's best overall defender after moving back to safety from nickel back. Fellow safety Javon Harris re-emerged this spring after a midseason benching, but still must prove he can prevent the big play in the fall. The best news of all for the unit? Coordinator Mike Stoops is back in Norman coaching them after nearly a decade as the Arizona head coach.
3. Oklahoma has more talent than anyone else: This one's pretty simple. If you line up every team in the league, truly examining everybody's two-deep, Oklahoma stands tall as the league's best team, especially at important positions like quarterback and the secondary. There are some questions along the defensive line, but the Sooners have solid athletes with potential. The same is true of the receivers, and running back will be a strength, even if Dominique Whaley isn't 100 percent next season. The linebackers are loaded again, and so is the offensive line, which might be the most important aspect of this year's team. If these games were played on paper, Oklahoma would be the champs.
Why the Sooners won't win the Big 12
1. Does Landry Jones have enough help? Ryan Broyles is gone, and Oklahoma's passing game seemed to self-destruct when he was gone. There's a lot of talent back, but offseason suspensions mean Stills will be flanked by a horde of freshmen targets. Can Trey Metoyer, Sterling Shepard, Durron Neal and Courtney Gardner be enough? And can Jones string together enough solid games to lead Oklahoma to a Big 12 title? The solid offensive line gives some reason to believe he will.
2. There won't be enough pass rush: Ronnell Lewis and Frank Alexander were an absolute terror last season, even though both were plagued by injuries, and Lewis' season shut down early. Now, they must be replaced. R.J. Washington and David King have plenty of potential, but Lewis and Alexander were mostly experienced, known entities. Washington and King have never been relied on as heavily as they will be this season. Can they handle the load? Oklahoma's Big 12 title hopes -- and defensive passing statistics -- probably depend on it.
3. The pool of Big 12 title suitors is too deep: Oklahoma's the best team on paper, sure, but the Big 12 is going to be brutal, and wide open. Nine (maybe 10) teams could legitimately beat the Sooners. That's just one game. Five others (we'll get to them later in the series) have the chance to prove they're better than the Sooners over the course of a 12-game schedule. Will they do it? Ultimately, that might be up to the Sooners.
What means success for Oklahoma in 2012? Click here for the full post, but here's a taste of the consensus from the group.
Honestly, I don't think anyone will consider this a successful season unless the Sooners get to the national championship game. That's unfortunate. But when you're a blue-chip program and a preseason Top-5 team that was preseason No. 1 last year, that's the expectation.
Counters Brandon Chatmon:
A national championship. Some programs play to improve their national prestige, others play for conference championships, but at Oklahoma the Sooners play for national championships, it's just that simple. Even if the Sooners make the national championship game and come up short, there will be more talk about OU's struggles to win BCS title games than how successful the season was, particularly when you began the season with a fifth-year quarterback who has started 37 games in three seasons.
Do you agree? I'm not so sure I do.
There's no question, with the amount of talent the 2011 team brought back, the only benchmark for success was a national title.
But to expect the same in 2012? I don't know if that's fair, especially for a program that lost a conference title and a BCS bid to its in-state rival by 34 points last season.
The receiving corps has been gutted, highlighted by the loss of Ryan Broyles, the FBS career leader in receptions. The defense lost the Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year in Frank Alexander, and four-year starter Travis Lewis at linebacker. Streaky defensive end Ronnell Lewis left for the NFL, too.
Oklahoma's a good team with the potential to win a national title, but is it fair to expect one from this team? My vote is no, especially considering the depth and quality of the Big 12 this season.
The Sooners might be in the preseason top five, but after last season's disappointment, winning a Big 12 title and taking home another BCS bowl win (over an actual opponent this time, not Connecticut) would qualify as a successful season in my book. It's not ideal. It's not the best or the dream scenario, but I'd still consider it a "success."
What's your vote? Be heard in our poll.
- Absolutely fantastic to see Ryan Broyles find a home in Detroit in the second round. Broyles is a second-round talent, and it was great to see him recognized as such -- with NFL teams seeing enough out of his newly-rehabbed knee to know he's a solid prospect. No player in the history of college football had more receptions. I like his chances for a productive career, especially on a building Detroit team with a lot of talent, especially at the offensive skill positions.[+] EnlargeBrian Spurlock/US PresswireThe Lions saw enough from Ryan Broyles to take a risk on him in the second round.
- I've written about it in the past, but I'm intrigued to see what Missouri tight end Michael Egnew does at the next level. He was less productive than his predecessors at Mizzou, Martin Rucker and Chase Coffman, but supposedly is a more talented blocker. Coffman got stuck in a franchise that didn't seem willing to use him for what he is -- a receiving tight end -- but can Egnew shed the Mizzou tight end stereotype? We'll find out in Miami.
- Really happy to see things work out well for Oklahoma's Frank Alexander, who was drafted in the fourth round by Carolina. He had a scare at the combine. Doctors thought he had a heart condition and his playing career was in jeopardy. Turns out, he was fine. Glad the mixup didn't cost him more than it could have.
- Allow me to join in the chorus of folks asking, "What the heck is Washington doing drafting Kirk Cousins?" Nothing against Cousins, who I actually think will do well at the next level (or could elsewhere, at least), but this isn't even about bringing in a fellow rookie to "compete with" Robert Griffin III. Washington has plenty of other holes. The Redskins couldn't try to draft and fill it, while finding a backup quarterback in free agency? Seriously. Good grief. And you wonder why Washington hasn't won anything in a long while.
- Ronnell Lewis' fall from top-25 prospect to fourth-rounder is intriguing. Did NFL teams see him up close and get spooked by his lack of a true position? In my book, he'd be a great defensive end, but if NFL teams think he's too small, I have major, major doubts about his ability to play the linebacker spot. The mental part of the game didn't come easily to Lewis at OU, but his career will be fascinating to watch. He's got a high motor, and if it doesn't work out, it won't be because of a lack of effort.
- Good on A&M's Randy Bullock, who went in the fifth round. Prepare for a similar fate in 2011, Quinn Sharp.
- Interesting to see OU's Travis Lewis fall all the way to the seventh round. How much did his broken toe in 2011, which he rushed back from to help his team, hurt his NFL stock? His tape from senior season was underwhelming, no doubt. NFL teams had to be scared about his lack of progression from freshman to senior year, at least not what you'd expect from a guy who topped 140 tackles as a freshman.
- A year ago, A&M folks were rejoicing a future Big 12 title run when Jeff Fuller announced his intention to return. The Aggies went 7-6 and Fuller went undrafted. I hate to see when guys who make decisions to come back get hurt by them, but Fuller's season started with a hamstring injury, and his production never recovered, even when he got healthy. Almost the exact same scenario with A&M corner Coryell Judie, who couldn't get healthy in 2011 and didn't get drafted, even though he was one of the Big 12's top players in 2010.
- Meanwhile, Bryce Brown was drafted, and his 2011 tape included three total carries, one of which was a fumble on his own goal line that nearly cost 10-win Kansas State a game early in the season. Take a bow, Mr. Brown.
- Adding Josh Cooper to the Browns to play with Brandon Weeden? Well played, Cleveland. Well played.
- How did Leonard Johnson go undrafted? I have no idea. Seemed like a solid middle rounder to me, and he proved his worth plenty of times this year against some great Big 12 receivers. His physical skills don't wow you, but he's instinctive at the position, and was physical and productive.
So, maybe you're not an NFL GM (or maybe you are).
If you're an obsessive fantasy football player (guilty here), you know the tier system well. It's similar to what NFL teams use on draft day, to know when they're getting a player at a value, and when they can afford to wait around. Often, they're broken into position groups.
Our draft guru, Todd McShay, broke down the tier system for this year's draft, and placed players in several groups. Here's who landed where from the Big 12:
Tier 1 -- elite prospects
- Baylor quarterback Robert Griffin III was one of just five prospects.
- OSU receiver Justin Blackmon was one of just two players.
- Texas A&M quarterback Ryan Tannehill was one of 12 players.
- Baylor receiver Kendall Wright was one of 12 players.
- Oklahoma State quarterback Brandon Weeden and Oklahoma linebacker Ronnell Lewis were two of 24 players.
You'll need Insider to see this post from Steve Muench, but here are a few snippets from our team on the ground in Indianapolis:
West Virginia's Bruce Irvin ran a 4.43-second 40-yard dash, which is faster than most outside linebackers, let alone defensive ends. That's good for Irvin, who projects as a pass-rushing outside linebacker. He's undersized (6-3, 245) and lacks the power to anchor against the run as an end. He would have been better off working with the linebackers at the combine because he is a developmental prospect, and it showed in his footwork when he dropped.
Obviously, I didn't get a big chance to see Irvin from week to week in the Big East, but that 40 time is nuts. Reminds me of ... wait for it ... Von Miller?
What about another Big 12 pass rusher you know a bit better?
Oklahoma State DE Jamie Blatnick isn't as explosive or athletic as some of the other prospects, and his arms are as short as Ingram's, so there are some red flags. On the other hand, Blatnick performed well during the drill. His hands were active and violent during bag work while he did a good job of staying low in his backpedal when asked to drop.
Blatnick's a tough guy, but like Muench said, doesn't have the jaw-dropping measurables of some other guys we've seen in this league or guys at the combine this week.
He was productive, though, and technique will take you a long way in the NFL. Blatnick isn't lacking in athleticism necessarily, he just doesn't wow you.
Now, time for a few results from Monday at the combine:
Najee Goode, West Virginia
- 40-yard dash: 4.66 seconds (sixth among inebackers)
- 40-yard dash: 4.68 seconds (T-8 among linebackers)
- 225-pound bench press: 36 reps (most among linebackers -- by four reps)
- 40-yard dash: 4.69 seconds (11th among linebackers)
- 225-pound bench press: 19 reps
- 40-yard dash: 4.73 seconds (14th among linebackers)
- 225-pound bench press: 24 reps (T-10th among linebackers
- 40-yard dash: 4.88 seconds
- 225-pound bench press: 22 reps (14th among linebackers)
- 225-pound bench press: 27 reps (T-6th among linebackers)
After a few arrivals and physical examinations on Wednesday, the NFL combine picks up a bit today with some media access and player measurements. Here's the full schedule.
NFL Draft analyst Mel Kiper weighed in with a few things to watch from the Big 12 this week:
He says check out RG3 for the intrigue:
QB Robert Griffin III: Few quarterbacks listed under 6-foot-2 started NFL games this season. Only one NFL quarterback is shorter than 6 feet -- Seneca Wallace. Hey, there's no height that makes a guy great, but it's fair to say scouts and coaches take it into account. I have Griffin listed at 6-2, and my guess is he measures at that. But the combine gives us a lot of interesting measurements. Griffin seems like a lock to be a top-five pick, even more so if he's as tall as currently listed.
And on health watch? A very productive Sooner.
WR Ryan Broyles Not much more to say about Broyles. If he's progressing really well, you wouldn't be surprised to see him off the board before the third round. The question is whether a team feels he can help early.
It's too bad Broyles' injury has hurt his draft stock, but here's guessing he'll be in the NFL not long after he heals.
Here's the full list of Big 12 talents heading to Indianapolis this week.
A few things I want to see:
- Griffin won't throw until his March 21 pro day, but he'll wow NFL scouts with his physical measurables. The debate -- if you can call it that just yet -- between Andrew Luck vs. RG3 for the No. 1 pick will have to intensify this week if it's going to intensify at all. Griffin's pro day, followed by Luck on March 22, will probably decide who goes No. 1.
- Where will Ronnell Lewis project? He'll be working with the defensive ends, but it seems likely he could move to outside linebacker at the next level. He played the position early in his career at Oklahoma, but picked up his production as he matured and the Sooners moved him to the defensive line. Can he convince NFL teams in interviews he's suited for both positions? That can only help drive up his draft stock.
- Can Brandon Weeden move up? There's lots of room behind RG3 and Luck for movement in the QB rankings. Arizona State's Brock Osweiler and Texas A&M's Ryan Tannehill are the other QBs in contention for the No. 3 spot, but Weeden could solidify it with a good throwing session at the combine. He hasn't definitively decided if he'll throw, but told the Washington Post he was "leaning toward" throwing. He impressed at the Senior Bowl, though he struggled in the actual game, and he'll wow NFL teams in his interviews as well. He's quantifiably a better passer than Osweiler and Tannehill, but will age concerns make teams tentative to spend a high draft pick?
- Is Kendall Wright big enough? You can't argue with his production or his speed, but it takes a lot for a 5-foot-10, 190-pound receiver to convince an NFL team to draft him in the first round. Wright looks right on the cusp. He topped 100 catches and 1,600 yards last year, but what's he got in store at the combine?
Spring football is already under way at Texas Tech, but in the coming weeks, the Big 12's other nine programs will join the Red Raiders in taking the field as a team for the first time since January, December, or November for some.
Here's a preview of what to expect:
Spring practice start date: March 19
Spring game: April 14
What to watch:
- Nick Florence: It's not official, but the Baylor quarterback job is Florence's to lose. That means he inherits the unenviable task of replacing the school's first Heisman winner. He replaced RG3 in 2009 with mixed results, but showed some major potential in a win over Texas Tech when RG3 took a shot to the head and sat out the second half. Can he keep the bowl streak alive at Baylor? We'll get an idea this spring.
- The defense's progression: You didn't need to see much more than the 67-56 Alamo Bowl win over Washington to know the Bears needed some work on defense. In the month of November, Baylor became the first team in FBS history to win four consecutive games in a single season while also giving up at least 30 points in each of those games. The defense can't make Florence pick up the slack to that level. Year 2 under Phil Bennett must be better. Baylor has no excuses. They have the athletes on campus necessary to be at least a decent defense.
- The team's attitude/motivation: Baylor played with a lot of purpose the past two seasons, and made history in both, cracking a 16-year bowl drought and winning 10 games this year. Is that fire still there? Baylor has to prove it is without RG3 (and Kendall Wright) carrying the team on the field, emotionally and mentally.
Spring practice start date: March 20
Spring game: April 14
What to watch:
- The quarterback battle: Or is it? Jared Barnett looked like the man of the future in Ames late in the season, leading the Cyclones to a historic upset of No. 2 Oklahoma State. But in the ugly Pinstripe Bowl loss to a mediocre Rutgers team, Barnett's inaccuracy posed big questions. He was benched and Steele Jantz stepped in, though he didn't play much better than Barnett. Turnovers were an issue for Jantz early on, but Barnett has to bounce back in the spring to make sure the job doesn't come open.
- The receivers: Darius Reynolds was the big-play man for the Cyclones, but he's gone. It's going to be tough to replace him. Slot receivers Aaron Horne and Josh Lenz were productive, but did little to stretch defenses like the Reynolds did. Can ISU find someone to fill the void?
- The new man at left tackle: Iowa State had the luxury of having a future pro at left tackle, Kelechi Osemele, for the past three seasons. He earned All-Big 12 nods in each of those seasons, but he's gone now. Junior Carter Bykowski was behind Osemele on the depth chart, but will the converted tight end be the new man at tackle for the Cyclones?
Spring practice start date: March 27
Spring game: April 28
What to watch:
- Uh, everything?: I mean, what's not to watch at KU? Charlie Weis steps in for the fired Turner Gill and tries to build KU up from nothing. The Jayhawks were one of the worst teams in Big 12 history last season, losing six games by at least 30 points. Weis will speak his mind and watching him rebuilding the Jayhawks is going to be fun. It all starts next month -- on the field, at least.
- KU's new pass-catch combo: Dayne Crist is on campus, and so is Oklahoma transfer Justin McCay, a former blue-chip recruit who didn't quite catch on in Norman. Quarterback and receiver were arguably the two biggest positions of need for KU last year, and we'll get a preview of what could be a productive combo next season. McCay isn't officially eligible for the 2012 season yet -- he needs the NCAA to waive its mandated redshirt year after a transfer -- but the coaching staff is confident he'll have it granted.
- The uncertainty on the depth chart: When a new staff comes in, you never know what to expect. Kansas' leading rusher in its final season under Mark Mangino, Toben Opurum, is now one of its best defensive linemen. Look for Weis to shake things up, too. Where? Who knows?
Spring practice start date: April 4
Spring game: April 28
What to watch:
- Collin Klein's maturation: Kansas State's quarterback could be fun to watch this spring and next fall. His throwing motion isn't pretty, but his accuracy improved in a big way throughout the season. If that continues at a pace anything close to what we saw last year, K-State's going to be a load for everyone. Look out.
- Developing depth at running back: John Hubert is back, and so is seldom-used Angelo Pease. Bryce Brown is gone, though. Klein handles a lot of the heavy lifting in the running game, but it'd be some nice insurance if K-State could establish some more depth in the backfield. Making Klein carry the ball 300 times again is tempting fate.
- Stars becoming superstars: Kansas State brings back more starters than all but seven teams in college football, so this team is going to look remarkably similar in 2012 to the way it did last year. However, it should get better. And its two transfers could look dominant this spring. Cornerback Nigel Malone and linebacker Arthur Brown emerged as stars last year, but we could see the duo emerge as true game-changers this spring. Look out, Big 12 offenses.
Spring practice start date: March 8
Spring game: April 14
What to watch:
- New faces on, off the field: Mike Stoops' arrival as the defensive coordinator was the biggest news this offseason in the Big 12, and Brent Venables, who had been at OU for all of Bob Stoops' tenure, left for Clemson rather than become co-defensive coordinator. Hopes are high that Stoops can revitalize Oklahoma's defense. He was in charge when the Sooners rode a dominant D to the 2000 national title, and the Sooners have the talent to win it all in 2012. Receiver Trey Metoyer joins the team this spring, and could be a major contributor immediately. Two of the team's four new tight ends are also enrolled early.
- QB Blake Bell's role: The Belldozer is back ... but so is full-time quarterback Landry Jones. How will the balance between the duo look this spring? And what new wrinkles will we see in Oklahoma's simple, yet near-unstoppable short-yardage formation that saw 13 touchdowns in the second half of 2011?
- The battle at defensive end: Oklahoma must fill two huge holes at defensive end. Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year Frank Alexander is gone, as is possible first-round pick Ronnell Lewis. R.J. Washington contributed late and has potential, but David King filled in for Lewis in the final three games of the season. The duo could be great, but it could also be pretty pedestrian. We'll get an idea this spring, but Lewis and Alexander set a high, high bar.
Spring practice start date: March 12
Spring game: April 21
What to watch:
- The quarterback battle: This will easily be the highest-profile, highest-quality quarterback battle in the Big 12. It won't be at the level of Texas Tech in 2010, but it won't be too far off. Clint Chelf, J.W. Walsh and Wes Lunt will go head to head. All have plenty of potential, though Lunt may have the most. The big-armed true freshman also has the least experience. Anything could happen here.
- Which receivers rise: Justin Blackmon and Josh Cooper leave huge holes behind. It's not every day a two-time Biletnikoff Award winner walks on campus. Hubert Anyiam is gone, too. Michael Harrison is unlikely to play for the 2012 season, but the school has offered no confirmation on his status. He had the most potential, but OSU is deep at the position. Who emerges as the top target? Isaiah Anderson? Tracy Moore? Josh Stewart? Anything could happen there, too.
- Defense needs a leader: Safety Markelle Martin has been the heart of the defense the past two seasons, but his big-hitting days are over. Who becomes the new voice of the defense? It needs to find leadership this spring heading into summer voluntary workouts.
Spring practice start date: Feb. 23
Spring game: April 1
What to watch:
- The quarterback competition: I still think having a competition at the spot, which Texas says it will, isn't the best option, but David Ash and Case McCoy will go at it alongside early-enrolling freshman Connor Brewer. If Ash secures the job, expect an announcement heading into summer officially anointing the sophomore.
- More sophistication on both sides of the ball: The progression is natural and likely. Offensive coordinator Bryan Harsin and defensive coordinator Manny Diaz had good first years in Austin, but this is Year 2. The spring won't be devoted to learning the playbook. It's time to master it. Both units could look markedly different, and much more refined next fall. Deny it all you like: Texas is back on its way to the top after a rough two years.
- Maturing offensive weapons: Last season, the Longhorns relied on two true freshman running backs (Malcolm Brown/Joe Bergeron), a freshman/sophomore rotation at quarterback and its top receiver (Jaxon Shipley) was a true freshman. No. 2 (Mike Davis) was a sophomore. I hope I don't have to tell you what freshmen and sophomores do in college football. Look. Out.
Spring practice start date: Feb. 25
Spring end date: April 5
What to watch:
- Can TCU shut out the scandal? Four team members were arrested in a recent drug sting and kicked off the team. How much of a distraction will that be for a program undergoing the most monumental change in its history? Quantifying the effects of the scandal will be pretty impossible, and we've got no idea how they'll handle the change, but will it be on players' minds?
- The offense tightens up: The Horned Frogs' offense is absolutely loaded and ready to go for 2012. Quarterback Casey Pachall returns and brings his top three weapons (Josh Boyce, Skye Dawson and Brandon Carter) with him. Running backs Waymon James, Ed Wesley and Matthew Tucker each topped 700 yards rushing in 2011 and all return. The spring will be all about fine-tuning an already stellar offense, and it'll be fun to watch.
- Replacing departed starters: All-America linebacker Tanner Brock was among the four football players arrested and booted from the team, as was all-conference defensive tackle D.J. Yendrey and likely starting safety Devin Johnson. Those were unforeseen losses, but TCU can't feel sorry for itself. Gary Patterson has no choice but to find new faces to fill those holes.
Spring practice start date: Feb. 17
Spring game: March 24
What to watch:
- Once again, a new defense: Texas Tech sounds like a broken record these days when it comes to defensive coordinators. This time, Art Kaufman will be stepping to the microphone as the fourth defensive coordinator in Lubbock in four years. He's bringing a 4-3, a shift back to what Ruffin McNeil ran in 2009. Chad Glasgow's 4-2-5 and James Willis' 3-4 failed miserably in 2011 and 2010, respectively, the first two years under Tommy Tuberville.
- The battle at running back: No one knows yet if Eric Stephens will be back next season. There's still a long way to go in his rehab from a dislocated knee he suffered last season in a loss to Texas A&M. DeAndre Washington is also out this spring after tearing his ACL against Missouri. Harrison Jeffers hung up his cleats. Who will prove to be reliable this spring? Look for the Red Raiders to try to use sophomore Bradley Marquez, freshman Javares McRoy and junior SaDale Foster in a manner similar to the way Oregon uses scatback De'Anthony Thomas, with lots of short passes and bubble screens to get them the ball in space, where they can use their speed and shiftiness to make plays.
- Team health: Tuberville said earlier this month that the team is missing 15 players this spring. It can't afford any more injuries. It's already going to be tough to get enough done this spring, but Tech can't start getting banged up.
Spring practice start date: March 11
Spring game: April 21
What to watch:
- Dana Holgorsen's offense in Year 2: Holgorsen didn't get a chance to coach his talented offense at Oklahoma State in its second year. The results could have been crazy. They might be at West Virginia in 2012, and the beginning steps will be taken this spring as Geno Smith & Co. get more and more comfortable with the system and Holgorsen adds more wrinkles.
- The battle at running back: Sophomore Dustin Garrison hurt his knee in practices leading up to the Mountaineers' 70-33 Orange Bowl win over Clemson, and won't be there for the spring. What does senior Shawne Alston have in store for the spring? Garrison was the featured back last season, but a big spring could help Alston earn a few carries next year.
- Defense needs help: Najee Goode leaves a big hole at linebacker, and defensive back Eain Smith's exit means the Mountaineers enter the season without two of their top three tacklers from a year ago. Bruce Irvin and Julian Miller's talents on the defensive line will be tough to replace, and in a league that requires a great pass rush, Irvin, Goode and Miller's 19 combined sacks must be replaced somehow.
More report cards:
Landry Jones and the man who would eventually hold the FBS record for career receptions, Ryan Broyles, as the team's top receiver. The Sooners were loaded at running back, though Dominique Whaley surprised everyone by leapfrogging top-flight recruits Brennan Clay and Roy Finch to steal the starting job. The offensive line was better this year, and the coaching staff showcased some great creativity with the near-unstoppable Belldozer formation that helped backup QB Blake Bell score 13 touchdowns over the second half of the season, after Whaley went down with a season-ending ankle injury. Ultimately, though, Jones wasn't quite as sharp without Broyles and the receiving corps had some big drops late in the season, and the Sooners were embarrassed in the season finale vs. Oklahoma State with the Big 12 title hanging in the balance. Jones' performance, too, has to be better in 2012. His 15 interceptions are far too many, and it was even more than he threw as a freshman in 2009, when he had the most in the Big 12. Once Broyles went down, receivers Kenny Stills and Jaz Reynolds simply weren't good enough.
DEFENSE: Baylor debacle aside, the Sooners defense wasn't as bad as it looked late in the season. Oklahoma State and the Bears made the Sooners' issues in the secondary look really, really serious, but it's easy to forget the Cowboys and Bears are also the nation's No. 2 and No. 4 passing offenses. Oklahoma gave up over 40 points in each of its three losses, though it was dealing with some injuries defensively in the first loss to Texas Tech, namely the loss of top corner Jamell Fleming. Looking big picture, Oklahoma played its best football early in the season, and ranked second in the Big 12 in total defense, behind only Texas. Additionally, DE Frank Alexander won the Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year and teammate Ronnell Lewis might have been right behind him in the voting if not for a late-season knee injury and academic suspension.
OVERALL: It's easy to feel like 2011 was a complete failure, considering the national title hype in the preseason and the year's finish in the Insight Bowl. You can't classify it as a success, and we'll get to the final grade in a bit. But 10 wins is 10 wins, especially in a very, very deep league this year. The Texas Tech loss got more inexplicable as the season dragged on, but Baylor and Oklahoma State were good teams. Better than Oklahoma? Talent-wise, no. But both knocked off the Sooners, who are back to the drawing board in 2012, chasing another national title from the role of dark horse, rather than favorite.
NORMAN, Okla. – When Bob Stoops brought his brother back to Norman, he envisioned recapturing the magic that generated some of the best defenses in Oklahoma history.
Instead, Stoops will now have to hire a linebacker coach.
Wednesday night, co-defensive coordinator Brent Venables announced that he has left Oklahoma to become the defensive coordinator at Clemson, leaving the Sooners with another coaching vacancy.
In hiring Mike Stoops last week, Bob Stoops believed he was getting the band back together.
With Mike Stoops calling the defense and Venables co-coordinating, the Sooners ranked third nationally in fewest yards allowed in 2003. In 2001, Oklahoma ranked fourth.
Too much time, however, had passed. And Bob Stoops’ hopes proved to be short-lived. After Venables and Mike Stoops took a recruiting trip together to Florida, Venables and his wife flew to Clemson. And the allure of a new challenge, a massive pay raise and the chance to call his own defense again won out.
Because of the success the Sooners endured while Mike Stoops was the senior partner in the relationship, Venables was never fully appreciated by the Oklahoma fan base. Moreover, the explosion of Big 12 offenses after Mike Stoops left made it virtually impossible to produce top five defenses.
But Venables still coordinated some gems that helped catapult the Sooners to Big 12 championships in ’06, ’08 and ’10.
In 2008, the Sooners wiped out second-ranked Texas Tech by holding one of the nation’s top offenses to a single touchdown in the first half. OU went on to play for a national championship that season.
But perhaps his most memorable coaching job came in the final game of the ’10 regular season against Oklahoma State. Faced with the task of slowing down the high-powered Cowboys, Bob Stoops and Venables elected to revamp the entire defense, going to a 3-4 scheme. The shift stunned the Cowboys, and Oklahoma State managed only three offensive touchdowns as Oklahoma prevailed.
But as much as the Sooners will miss Venables as a coordinator and linebackers coach, they will miss him just as much as an ace recruiter.
Ronnell Lewis, Demontre Hurst, Tom Wort, Corey Nelson, Austin Box, Jamell Fleming and DeMarco Murray are just a few of the standouts Venables had a hand in recruiting to Norman in recent years.
He also was the assistant who secured two of OU’s top verbal commitments in this recruiting class: safety Eric Striker and running back Daniel Brooks. Venables also was the primary assistant recruiting California cornerback Brandon Beaver, who is scheduled to visit OU this weekend.
Bob Stoops tried to get the band back together. With his brother and Venables blazing the recruiting trail as a tandem, then forging those ferocious defenses again on the field.
Instead, the Stoopses will be on their own. Turned out, the band didn’t get back together.
Here's what each should do.
Justin Blackmon, WR, Oklahoma State: Blackmon's clearly a physical freak capable of dominating just about every college cornerback, if not all of them. He's caught 224 passes in the past two seasons and even his coach, Mike Gundy, says the two-time Fred Biletnikoff Award winner should leave. Brandon Weeden will be gone next year, too. Being honored on Senior Night and implying his decision is made makes this look like a mere formality. The Fiesta Bowl will be his last game in a Cowboy uniform.
What he should do: Enter the NFL draft
Robert Griffin III, QB, Baylor: Griffin grabbed a Heisman on Saturday night, the first in Baylor's history, as well as the Davey O'Brien Trophy as the nation's top quarterback. He says his team got a taste of success last year, making a bowl for the first time since 1994, but returned for "a little dessert." What's left now? A loss in the bowl game could be the one thing that convinces RG3 to come back, but even that might not be enough. He's transformed the program, and loses his top receiver, Kendall Wright. If RG3 wants to chase a Big 12 title in what could be a wide-open race in 2012, he might come back, but without Wright, that'll be an uphill battle. Not to mention, his stock is as high as ever and will only rise further at the combine when he quantifies his athleticism and wows league brass in interviews.
What he should do: Enter the NFL draft
Landry Jones, QB, Oklahoma: Jones struggled at times without Ryan Broyles, and his numbers clearly regressed from 2010 to 2011. The physical skills are there for Jones, but he still has a lot of room for growth. And though Broyles will be gone in 2011, he'll have solid targets next year in Kenny Stills and Jaz Reynolds, and a team that brings back a lot offensively. His stock is dropping, and his fiancÚ still has another year left at Oklahoma. What's the rush?
What he should do: Stay at Oklahoma for his senior year
Ronnell Lewis, DE, Oklahoma: Lewis could still grow as an athlete, but you never know what could happen between now and next season. He nearly failed to qualify academically before the season, and after injuring his knee, was suspended for Bedlam for missing class. His stock has dropped a bit, but could jump back up when NFL scouts see his raw athleticism at the combine.
What he should do: Enter the NFL draft
Kenny Vaccaro, S, Texas: Vaccaro's really versatile, moving around a bit from safety to nickelback and personified the "barrel of rattlesnakes" hyperbole his new coordinator, Manny Diaz, described him as before the season. He made 68 tackles and broke up eight passes with a pair of interceptions. He started about half of 2010 and took over full-time this year, but he can further sharpen his already solid instincts with another season. Plus, he could help UT continue its bounce-back efforts from 2010. I'd have to imagine that's rewarding. Vaccaro has the measurables to leave, but it's hard to envision a scenario in which he regrets returning.
What he should do: Return to Texas for his senior year
Record: 9-3 (6-3)
Oklahoma embraced the preseason expectations and didn't shy away from any talk of a national title. Before the season, coach Bob Stoops even told an audience of boosters it was "about time" the Sooners nabbed their eighth national title, first since 2000 and second under Stoops. Oklahoma didn't really even come close to making it happen. Texas Tech embarrassed the Sooners on their home field, ending a 39-game win streak at Owen Field, the nation's longest and one that dated back to 2005. That offered the first evidence that the Sooners weren't the juggernaut they looked in the preseason. Tech finished 5-7 and the Sooners got a road win against a then-top 5 Florida State team, but the Seminoles fell to 8-4 and 5-3 in the weak ACC.
Oklahoma was hurt by late-season injuries to Ryan Broyles and Dominique Whaley, as well as a knee injury to Ronnell Lewis, but the Sooners lost two of their three final games and finished basically fourth in the Big 12, since Baylor holds the tiebreak over OU. The late-season swoon made the Sooners rival Texas A&M as one of the Big 12's biggest disappointments.
Offensive MVP: Landry Jones, quarterback. Jones' career, which may be over if he enters the NFL draft, is a bit unfortunate. He's always been undervalued by Oklahoma fans and really, most everyone. That's what happens when you follow Sam Bradford, a Heisman winner and No. 1 draft pick and make a few mistakes in big spots. Jones struggled at times as a freshman (he's the only guy to ever do that, right?), but he's been outstanding the past two years. His numbers regressed this year, but he still threw for 4,302 yards, 28 touchdowns and 14 interceptions.
Defensive MVP: Frank Alexander, defensive end. Easy pick here. Alexander's been the Big 12's best defender, and a huge disruptive force for every offense in the Big 12. He led the league with 8.5 sacks and 18 tackles for loss. He had 51 tackles and also grabbed an interception.
Turning point: Broyles' injury. The FBS leader in career receptions went down with a torn ACL against Texas A&M, and from that moment on, three games and a quarter-plus against Texas A&M, Jones didn't throw another touchdown pass and the Sooners lost two of three games. Broyles was missed in a big way, and though the Sooners improved in the short yardage by bringing in quarterback Blake Bell in the "BellDozer" formation, Oklahoma didn't rebound from the loss of Broyles.
What’s next: In the immediate future, Oklahoma faces Iowa, Bob Stoops' alma mater, in the Insight Bowl. After that, it's decision time. The defense loses Alexander, Ronnell Lewis and Travis Lewis, but brings back a lot of talent with guys like Tony Jefferson, Aaron Colvin and Tom Wort. Offensively, if Jones returns, the Sooners could be in for a 10-win season in 2012 with a bit of upside. If Jones leaves, the Big 12 is wide open in 2012 and Oklahoma will have a quarterback competition between Bell and Drew Allen on tap for the spring. Running back Dominique Whaley will be back with Brennan Clay and Roy Finch, but the Sooners will be without a lot of experience if Jones leaves.
Time for our look back at the week that was in the Big 12.
Best offensive player: Brandon Weeden, QB, Oklahoma State. Weeden was on point for 60 minutes on Saturday, save a couple regrettable interceptions. He completed 36 of 46 passes for 502 yards and four touchdowns against Kansas State, and was at his best when Oklahoma State needed him late in the fourth quarter.
Best game: Oklahoma State 52, Kansas State 45. This was pretty reminiscent of Bedlam last year. We saw four touchdowns in just three minutes of actual game time, but this one came with three lead changes and a tie game. Very nice. Easily the game of the year to this point, and a heart-wrenching loss for the Wildcats.
Best play: Brandon Weeden to Justin Blackmon for a 54-yard touchdown. Oklahoma State made a pressure-packed drive look easy, hooking up for a long score to take the lead back after trailing 38-37. They followed it up with a 2-point conversion and the Cowboys trailed for just 29 seconds.
Best team performance: Texas. The Longhorns were physical on both sides of the ball, muscling up on talented Texas Tech receivers and dominating the line of scrimmage on offense. Despite missing their leading receiver and leading rusher, the Longhorns rolled for 400 yards rushing in consecutive games for the first time in 24 years. Joe Bergeron ran for 191 yards, and finally, Mack Brown looks like he's developing the running game he's wanted for so long.
Worst moment: Ryan Broyles' injury. Injuries are the worst part about this game, and there's nothing good about seeing a player like Broyles, one of the most talented and hardest-working guys in the country, go down. If you ever doubt how much this game means to most of these players, look back at Broyles in tears on the sideline while trainers looked at his injured knee. Think of all the man-hours that go into preparing for a season — gone in one fluke play. Just unfair. Broyles isn't the only guy to suffer a season-ending injury this season, but don't forget how hard injuries like that can be to deal with when you consider exactly what players lost.
Worst quarter: Texas A&M's third quarter. I can't explain it. If Texas A&M could, they'd fix it. Either way, it's unbelievable. A&M and OU were playing an SEC slobberknocker until a Big 12 blowout broke out in the third quarter. The Aggies were outscored 28-0 in a span of less than seven minutes and a 13-10 deficit ballooned to a 41-10 blowout and a fourth second-half meltdown this year.
Worst confusion: Baylor fans. The Bear faithful reportedly kicked off a sarcastic "S-E-C!" chant after beating new SEC addition Missouri on Saturday. Now, come on Baylor. It's my understanding that the sarcastic S-E-C chant has been abandoned in favor of the earnest "Big 12! Big 12!" chant. Oklahoma State fans started the trend after a victory over Texas A&M earlier this season, so get with the program, Bears.
Best confession: Trey Gaddy, Oklahoma State. The student helped settle maybe the funniest pseudocontroversy in the Big 12 this year, admitting to me after Saturday's game that he was the man behind Missouri's upside-down flag at Boone Pickens Stadium last week. Call him the Big 12's version of The Bagman, I guess.
Best fashion sense: Bill Snyder, Kansas State. Leave it to Snyder to go retro and make it look good. He busted out what was presumably a purple windbreaker commemorating K-State's appearance in the 2002 Holiday Bowl. I think the only other place you could find another one is a thrift store in Brooklyn. Snyder, however, surely found it in his closet. For that, we salute the timeless legend.
Second-best fashion sense: Oklahoma State. The Cowboys' gray helmets, black jerseys and gray helmets looked pretty outstanding. Basically the Raiders, except they weren't a horribly mismanaged team.
Mel Kiper has done the same.
But the two ESPN draft analysts' boards look similar with one exception: Baylor quarterback Robert Griffin III.
He's No. 19 according to Kiper but nowhere to be found on McShay's board.
Here's what McShay had to say about the Big 12 prospects who were in his top 32.
No. 3: Landry Jones, QB, Oklahoma: Jones continues to put up huge numbers in Oklahoma's spread offense, and while he trusts his arm too much at times, Jones shows excellent touch, the ability to change speeds and accuracy on the run.
No. 10: Justin Blackmon, WR, Oklahoma State: A strong route-runner with elite ball skills, Blackmon has excellent body control and good awareness and strength as a runner after the catch.
No. 25: Ronnell Lewis, DE/OLB, Oklahoma: Lewis is in the middle of a breakout season. He has an impressive combination of burst, lateral agility and body control when bending the edge.
|Landry Locker of ESPN Dallas is joined by SoonerNation's Jake Trotter to discuss Oklahoma's win over Kansas, Ryan Broyles record-breaking career in Norman, the upcoming game against Texas Tech and more. |
The Sooners rank fourth nationally in total offense, and its biggest names live on the offensive side of the ball, but is it possible the Sooners' best side of the ball is defense?
"Our expectation is to play hard-nosed football and be the defense that we know we can be," safety Tony Jefferson said. "We’ve got a lot of talent on this team, especially on the defensive side of the ball."
The Sooners have stymed offenses in all six games this season. Tulsa was held 15 points under its scoring average. For Florida State, 22 points below its 35-point average. Even Missouri -- Oklahoma's worst defensive performance -- scored five points fewer than its average.
The Sooners held Texas and Kansas both to 17 points, nearly two touchdowns below their average.
"There’s always some spots here or there through six games you’d like to have done better, but I feel we’re playing pretty well," said Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops.
The Sooners gave up a whopping 6 yards in the second half against Kansas last week, keeping the Jayhawks' much-improved offense from recording a first down until the game's final minutes.
Oklahoma leads the Big 12 in total defense and ranks 22nd nationally with just over 317 yards given up each game. It ranks 11th by allowing fewer than 16 points a game.
That's even more impressive considering the Sooners have already faced offensive juggernauts. Ball State and Texas are the Sooners' only opponents this year outside the top 45 in total offense. The Cardinals scored six points.
Frank Alexander has emerged as one of the Big 12's best defensive players, wrecking offenses up front while the Big 12's reigning freshman of the year, Tony Jefferson, states his case in the secondary.
He's flanked by arguably the two best corners in the Big 12 this season, Demontre Hurst and Jamell Fleming.
Oh yeah, and Oklahoma has done it all with its leader and the preseason favorite to win the Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year, Travis Lewis, on the mend from a broken bone in his foot.
Like the Sooners' multi-faceted offense, the defense can do it all.
"We’re not the kind of defense that runs one particular style. We have different types of defenses," Jefferson said. "If you’re an offensive team, you don’t know what we’re going to run or what we’re going to be in."
Jefferson, with the ability to play a traditional safety spot, nickel back or outside linebacker, might be the most versatile Sooner defender. The Sooners' base 4-3 defense can randomly become a three-man front. Defensive end Ronnell Lewis projects as an NFL outside linebacker, and can rush off the end or drop into coverage.
The Sooners can put four defensive ends on the field and use their speed and athleticism to further enhance a pass rush that's already managed 24 sacks this season, third-most nationally.
Oklahoma's 15 forced turnovers are more than anyone in the Big 12, save Oklahoma State.
"We’ve created a lot of pressure on quarterbacks and a lot of turnovers and gotten a lot of lost yardage plays," Stoops said of his defense, which leads the Big 12 with 48 tackles for loss, too. "That’s some of the things we’ve done the best."
Don't lose sight of the impact going up against one of the nation's best offenses every day has had. But maybe it works the other way, too?
Either way, put the two together (and Oklahoma does every Saturday), and the Sooners look like an ever-improving national title contender.
"I feel like we’ve done well, but I feel like we have a lot more to prove," Jefferson said. "We’ve still got a long way to go. We’re reaching the point in the season where there’s no more slacking off. Teams will take advantage of that. We know what we’ve got to do."
Lewis, a junior, had been in academic limbo, but remained in practice during fall camp and the preseason. He remained on the depth chart and was working with the Sooners' first unit, but Oklahoma officials had been unable to confirm his NCAA eligibility throughout the preseason
Big news for the Sooners, who get their best pass-rusher back on the field.
The coaches must have had a good feeling Lewis would be on the field, though. If not, those would be a lot of wasted reps with the first team.
But Oklahoma fans can breathe a sigh of relief after finally getting some good news this offseason.
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